Slain Florida priest worked with people who were 'dangerous'

AP News
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Posted: Apr 19, 2016 3:14 PM
Slain Florida priest worked with people who were 'dangerous'

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) — A Roman Catholic priest in Florida whose body was found in rural east Georgia dedicated his life to working with prisoners and society's downtrodden, a calling that police say put him in contact with his killer.

Father Rene Wayne Robert, 71, is believed to have been helping a troubled Jacksonville man recently released from jail when he was killed, authorities say. They believe the suspect kidnapped the priest, took him to Georgia in his own car and killed him there, but the motive for the slaying remains unclear.

"He did prison ministry, and unfortunately in this case it seems to have come back against him," said Father John Gillespie, a fellow priest in the Diocese of St. Augustine in northeast Florida. Gillespie said Robert's work sometimes took him to places and people most would consider dangerous.

"Putting himself in harm's way. That phrase didn't exist in Rene's vocabulary," he said in a telephone interview.

Robert was a senior priest for the Diocese of St. Augustine. The body, which still must be positively identified, was found near Waynesboro, Georgia. Authorities were led to the spot by the man who was arrested while driving Robert's car.

St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar told The AP Tuesday that all the evidence indicates the body is Robert.

Law enforcement authorities in Aiken, South Carolina, found Steven James Murray, 28, following a manhunt. He was driving Robert's Toyota Corolla, which the sheriff said Murray had driven back and forth between Florida and South Carolina.

Authorities believe Robert was introduced to Murray by a young woman the priest had been counseling.

"She warned the father about this guy," Shoar said.

Murray was arrested April 13 and returned to St. Augustine two days later on charges of fleeing and attempting to elude law enforcement officers and on being a fugitive. He was being held without bond Tuesday in the St. Johns County Jail.

Officials say Murray likely will face murder charges in Georgia, where Robert's body was found.

Shoar was a close friend of Robert's.

"We talked about that ... that over the years that he'd go out in the middle of the night and help people and give them money. People who had just gotten out of jail," Shoar said.

Sheriff's officials in Burke County, Georgia, didn't return a telephone message from The Associated Press early Tuesday.

Investigators believe Robert was killed Sunday, April 10 in the evening, Shoar said. He was reported missing April 12 after church officials became concerned when he missed an appointment. Robert was a prolific Facebook user, and friends became worried when his steady stream of status updates stopped.

Shoar called Murray a "career criminal." He was released from the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville on April 6 following a March 22 arrest for operating a vehicle with a suspended license. Shoar said Murray also broke into homes in South Carolina before his arrest, and was found with multiple guns including a rifle with a scope.

It's not known whether Murray has an attorney.

Robert's sister, Debra Bedard, fought through tears at a televised news conference to say she was glad to be able to take her brother's body home.

"My brother died doing what he loved: helping people," she said.

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